It’s been a hell of an interesting year for anime. The TV anime market is as saturated as ever while critically-acclaimed anime films seem to be flying at us every week, and in the middle of it all is Netflix injecting the concept of exclusive, bingeable anime series into an already swirling miasma of artistry and content. It’s no surprise then that every one of these trends is represented in some way on the list of my 10 favorite anime of the past year; a list that’ll contain some surprises but probably even more predictable picks if you follow me at all. Let’s get this thing going, in reverse order!
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
10. Lupin III Part V
Lupin Part IV left me wanting a lot more a few years ago, and this year Part V seemed like a major course correction for the series, experimenting more with the current iteration of Lupin’s character and formula. Usually it feels like Lupin is afraid to venture outside of fictional European locales and stories, but Part V saw a relatively major departure from this in certain ways, setting part of its story in real-life Paris while also traveling to vistas in Africa and the Middle East. The overarching plot involving modern tech thievery, cryptocurrency and the illicit dark web drug trade was obviously topical, but screenwriter Ichiro Okouchi (Devilman Crybaby) somehow made it work impressively, making Lupin the character feel a bit dated within his own world without any of the concepts feeling forced to the viewer. This new conflict also brought about one of the best new Lupin characters in years with Ami Enan, a cold teenage hacker who palled around with Lupin’s gang for the beginning and end of the season. Interspersed throughout were several standalone episodes set both in the modern “blue jacket” era, as well as the older red and green jacket eras which allowed the story and characters to be more silly and less self-serious. That in particular was a very welcome departure that really exuded the love and appreciation the particular episode directors and writers had for the older Lupin series. Overall, Lupin Part V is one of the best Lupin stories in years, and delves into the history and lore of Lupin himself more than ever before. As a huge fan of Lupin since my early days of watching the red jacket series on Adult Swim, it was a joy to experience from start to finish.
9. A Place Further than the Universe
Yorimoi (as I’ll be calling it here in the interest of conciseness) is probably one of the greatest stories of self-discovery and personal catharsis ever told in an anime. The motivations of our four main characters for embarking on an adventure to Antarctica are intensely human: Shirase’s burning need to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Kimari wanting to break up the monotony of her everyday life and see faraway places, Hinata needing to do something special before entering college, and Yuzuki joining the Antarctic expedition to follow her first real group of friends. Shirase’s personal story in particular was I think the most emotionally poignant for me, with the biggest payoff in the scene where it all culminates in her finding her mother’s lost laptop, her friends giving her the appropriate space while crying together in the hallway outside her room. Yorimoi’s a show filled with moments like that; moments that result in these very human characters finding themselves in ways that anime rarely portrays. It’s a show that challenges some of the worst traits of humanity with some of the best, time and again delivering a message of hope and inspiration that made watching it nothing short of a cleansing experience for me.
8. My Hero Academia
Most years I’d feel like putting My Hero Academia on any year-end best-of list is kind of a given and thus would be taking space from a show that deserves to be talked about more, but from the first moment of Season 3’s premiere Bones’ studio 1 was working uphill. Most of the star creative staff that had made the first two seasons such a rousing success were peeled off to work on the series’ first theatrical outing, Two Heroes, thus leaving a talented but as-yet unproven B-team to put together this new season. This resulted in Season 3 having an extremely rocky start (the first episode was a half-recap pool episode, really?) that seemed at times boring and inconsequential, and got to be at worst pretty grating. However, things thankfully cleared up quickly once Bakugo’s rescue arc began, and My Hero was able to deliver what turned out to be some of the greatest moments in the series to date. Particularly of note for me and just about everyone else (I think) was All Might’s impactful “United States of Smash”, a scene so well-directed, animated and just generally put together that it really reminds you why anime is such an exciting medium through which to experience these things in the first place. Add that to Bakugo and Midoriya’s cathartic fight towards the end of the season and the introduction of the long-awaited “Big 3” that set up the excitement yet to come in the fourth season, and it becomes clear that My Hero Academia Season 3, despite all the disadvantages stacked against it, continued to solidify the show’s place as one of the best shonen series currently running.
7. Yuru Camp△
It’s exceedingly rare that such a simple slice of life series leaves enough of a lasting impression on me to include in a year-end list, but Yurucamp is just that perfect. There’s no sweeping message on life or love here, no notable sakuga or overly artistic direction, but what Yurucamp lacks in spectacle or commentary it makes up for in pure unbridled joy, exploration and character. Each new episode features a new and beautiful real-life locale within the Japanese countryside, lovingly recreated in animated form but never overblown. The show relies on the real and simple beauty of each place to drive home its wonder, from Mt. Fuji rising from the fog on a new morning or the lights of a town in the valley below twinkling in the darkness. The show’s color palette of soothing pastels and earth tones really adds to the simplicity and cleanliness of this effect. The true joy of Yurucamp doesn’t end there however, because it’s seeing our lovable cast of characters inhabit these spaces and enjoy their time there (and each other’s company) that really rounds the experience out. Nadeshiko and Rin’s slow journey to friendship and thus Rin’s initiation into the school camping club is a heartwarming experience to behold, and mirrors the increased comfiness portrayed episode to episode as the characters become closer with one another. Yurucamp is now easily one of my favorite slice of life anime ever, and I can’t wait for the second season and movie.
6. Liz and the Blue Bird
Naoko Yamada is obviously one of the greatest auteur directors working today but rarely does she get to stretch her artistic muscles as much as she was able to with Liz and the Blue Bird. From moment one it’s clear that not only is it Naoko Yamada’s best work to date, it might be the most Naoko Yamada film she’s ever directed as well. Liz opens with a three minute long sequence that lacks any dialogue and is synced up to Kensuke Ushio’s delicate score, with numerous shots of Nozomi and Mizore’s character acting portrayed through just their feet and legs, something that’s been Yamada’s trademark since she was directing episodes of K-On! Yamada tells so much of the film’s story through its visual style and direction that as the real-life story of the Kitauji High School band is punctuated by the story of the titular Liz and her Blue Bird, the film’s entire look changes as well, reflecting Liz’s storybook tale with brighter colors, sharper lines and more simple designs. Beyond the film’s visual storytelling is Nozomi and Mizore’s story itself, the film’s greatest feat that is not only a payoff for Sound! Euphonium fans in general but also a catharsis that’s been building since the second season of the TV anime. It also offers a brief glimpse into what the makeup of Kitauji High School’s band is now, well into Kumiko’s second year with old faces having moved on to be replaced by fresh new ones, who Yamada thankfully isn’t afraid at all to flesh out fully to my delight. So much of Euphonium’s greatness is regarding the story’s handling of interpersonal relationships, conflict and resolution between characters, and the general melancholy and malaise of being a high school student. It’s these themes that Liz and the Blue Bird explores in new and interesting ways, not only because it’s concerning two different main characters with their own conflicts and flaws, but because it’s done in a way that only Naoko Yamada and her team can produce. It’s transcendent.
5. Kase-san and Morning Glories
The Kase-san manga series became one of my favorite manga of all time this year, and is not only the best yuri manga I’ve ever read but also one of the best pieces of romance fiction as well. It’s a touching tale of two girls falling in love for the first time, in a way that lacks any semblance of toxicity and is nothing but positive and inspirational. That’s not something I can say about any other yuri manga I’ve read, and it was those ideals that this single OVA adaptation of the four currently available Kase-san books had to live up to. While the adaptation can feel a bit rushed to manga readers considering the need to cram four entire books into one hour, the team at studio Zexcs and specifically director Takuya Satou did an incredible job at capturing exactly what makes Kase-san so great. The OVA focuses on the pivotal moments in Kase and Yamada’s relationship, from Kase’s first time being invited to Yamada’s house to a school trip to Okinawa to a heartwrenching scene of Yamada seeing Kase off to track tryouts in Tokyo. These poignancy of these moments is driven along by the fantastic musical score and beautiful color palette, as well as some of the best character acting animation present in anything this year. Kase and Yamada are flawlessly performed by seiyuu Ayane Sakura and Minami Takahashi respectively, further adding to the intense authenticity of an already impressive adaptation. It’s been made clear by the staff over at Zexcs that this OVA being made at all was a bit of a miracle, hence why it was only a single-shot hour-long production, but that just serves to make it feel even more special. It was a clear passion project by the team that brought it to life, with director Satou even mentioning in interviews that they specifically wanted to adapt Kase-san because of how positive a representation it is. I can’t sing its praises enough and if you’re reading this and haven’t checked out the Kase-san manga yet, please do. Doing so would serve this OVA’s purpose more than anything else.
Studio Trigger had perhaps their best work to date in 2018 with SSSS.Gridman, though my fanboy ass could be loathe to pick a favorite most days of the week. Regardless, I struggle to think of a Trigger project that had more appeal across the disparate parts of anime fandom than this. Gridman’s combination of cerebral, nearly experimental character studies and otherworldy presentation with pure homages to tokusatsu and mecha was impressive enough, but director Akira Amemiya managed to make it work on a level I’d not thought possible. Every character’s arc on the show was compelling enough, but it was the interactions and evolution of Akane Shinjou and Rikka Takarada that stole the spotlight time and again. Akane’s place in the world of Gridman as a lonely god who created what should’ve been a perfect world around herself made for a highly sympathetic villain, and her arc paid off with maybe one of the greatest and most convention-defying endings I’ve ever seen in an anime. Besides all the fantastic storytelling and Trigger’s usual caution-thrown-to-the-wind production style, Gridman was destined to be a show I liked long before it ever premiered. Mayumi Shintani, one of my favorite seiyuu working today and voice of Haruko Haruhara from FLCL, voiced Rikka’s mom, and Evangelion composer Shirou Sagisu provided music for the show. Add to this Trigger’s B-team of animators working under Amemiya (a director I already like and admire), who were clearly all raised on the works of Gainax and other pivotal mecha and tokusatsu works of the 80s and 90s, and you have a show that was paying homage to mecha series like Dangaioh and the pivotal Ultra Series in tandem with every episode. I’d never say SSSS.Gridman was an “Evangelion successor” because that type of assertion is just annoying, but it might be the clearest example of the effect of Evangelion on the current generation of young animators we’ve seen to date.
3. After the Rain
WIT Studio’s adaptation of After the Rain was a flawlessly-executed vision from bottom to top. Visually the series is incredibly crisp and flawlessly animated, with Yuka Shibata’s designs flowing simply from one scene to the next, shining brightly with smooth curves, reflective surfaces and vibrant colors. The look of the series reminds the viewer of vintage shojo, with all of the bright visual flair and poised, erected characters and none of the bombastically silly flights of fancy. Ayumu Watanabe directs it all slowly, intimately- focusing on the minutiae of human movement through everyday life as a means of conveying each character’s emotion with subtle charm and accuracy. The main character Akira Tachibana is an appropriately melancholy high school student, who acts every bit as self-serious, selfish and insecure as a girl her age in real life would act. Her boss and unfortunate love interest Masami Kondo is a generation older than her and leagues more oblivious, but the tale of Akira’s longing after him is told with a shocking amount of nuance and subtlety for an anime that had every chance to be problematic. The culmination of the series’ tension between Akira and her boss is an exercise in telling a troubled story with the utmost dignity, our two main characters reaching a mutual understanding based on their shared troubles with their past and continued ailments while also understanding that perpetual distance that must be kept between them. It’s by far one of the most interesting commentaries on inter-generational relationships in a culture very different from our own, and the show being a visual smorgasbord is just the cherry on top of an already remarkable production.
2. Devilman Crybaby
No anime dominated the discourse in 2018 quite like Devilman Crybaby, and for good reason. Masaki Yuasa was perhaps the only man for the job looking back on it all, with the task of updating and reworking Go Nagai’s ancient Devilman property as monumental and difficult as just about anything I can think of. It’d also been a while since Yuasa had produced anything quite as dark as this so I think it was easy for just about everyone to be completely blindsided by the artistic freight train that was Crybaby. But, the man’s mind is an enigma much like Nagai himself so I suppose it was equally fitting that Yuasa’s version of Devilman would hearken back to the hyperviolence and hypersexuality of 1980s anime films and OVAs, while at the same time adding in positively modern looks into puberty, LGBTQ issues and the state of today’s humanity. This duality is reflected in how the music of the show helps tell its story, with Kensuke Ushio’s score at times smacking of synthwave and retro cyberpunk soundtracks while at the same time the originally yanki delinquent characters have been replaced by a trio of freestyling hip-hop archetypes acting as a Greek Chorus commenting on the tale as it unfolds. Ryo and Akira’s designs remain largely the same but their fashion has been updated seamlessly from 80s Burberry and corduroy to modern street fashion and health goth chic, respectively. Even Crybaby’s visual influences are duplicitous, with Yuasa blending the biblical and prehistoric imagery of the original 80s OVA and even earlier manga with colors and vistas that look torn directly from Evangelion’s third impact, an irony not lost on me considering Hideaki Anno was influenced by Devilman when creating his own scenes of apocalyptic destruction. Devilman Crybaby succeeded in opening up the west to Nagai’s Devilman like nothing before it. In the weeks and months after it was first released and even in some ways still now my Twitter TL is positively dominated by art of Akira and Ryo, with so many people reading the original manga and watching the fantastic original OVAs (myself included) that it became harder to count than to sit back and marvel at. All this and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Crybaby also gave me my favorite character of any anime in 2018 with Miki Makimura, a character so charming, complex and well-written that her inevitable death at the end of the series is by far one of the most poignant and devastating moments I’ve ever experienced in any media. Devilman Crybaby is in all meanings of the phrase a tour de force, and it began 2018 with a bang that few other anime could match in intensity.
There was no anime in 2018 more confident in what it was than Megalobox, and in turn no anime in 2018 that appealed more to my tastes. It’s fundamentally an anime out of time; a story, aesthetic and style that feels much more like something that belongs in the late 90s than today, and a purposeful decision by the production team at TMS Entertainment. Being a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ashita no Joe, director You Moriyama wanted Megalobox to look and feel “vintage”, so much so that the animation team made the decision to downscale the final product and then upscale it again, giving the series a decidedly low-resolution visual feel. Whether or not you were a fan of that creative decision (hint: I was) the rest of the production also contributed to the feeling that Megalobox was supremely sure of itself in what it was trying to do and what it was seeking to pay tribute to. The writing was measured and perfectly paced, with the dialogue of characters both in and out of the ring reflecting the swagger and trash-talking expected in an anime based entirely around boxing. The delivery of the show’s seiyuu cast, specifically that of Yoshimasa Hosoya as Joe, is at an award-winning level of equal parts humanity and coolness. The decision to use hip-hop producer mabanua with additions from Japanese rapper COMA-CHI was probably the most important in contributing to the show’s particular atmosphere, and the fact that multiple songs on the soundtrack feature rapping in Japanese is an extreme rarity in any anime whose importance can’t be downplayed. Moriyama’s style of direction is also a huge factor in the show’s establishment of atmosphere, especially when concerned with making it feel “vintage”, as there are several points throughout the series where he uses music montages to do nothing but establish the atmosphere of the show’s setting: Joe riding pensively between the slums and the main city, demonstrating the disparity of life in the world he inhabits. A pair of women getting “Gearless Joe” tattoos to show how the attitudes in the city reflect the efforts of our main character. Joe shadowboxing in the rain the night before the final fight. All these disparate factors add up to a show that probably shouldn’t have existed in 2018. These kinds of stories just aren’t told in this way in modern anime, but here you have it. A poignant tale of two men with different pasts stripping away everything and laying themselves bare in order to prove who is “the real deal”. A violent relationship lacking vitriol and exuding respect. A “vintage” anime made in 2018. Those are the dichotomies that propel Megalobox to greatness, and that’s why it’s my favorite anime of 2018.
Bloom into You, Anima Yell! and Zombieland Saga
It’s been a hell of a great year for normalized LGBT+ representation in anime, and with Kase-san already covered on my list I figured I’d mention the other anime that seemed to have gotten it right in 2018. Bloom into You had a normalized and positive representation of an adult lesbian relationship, Anima Yell! saw one of anime’s first lesbian confession scenes in a non-yuri anime (helped along by the acceptance and encouragement of the central characters), and Zombieland Saga rounded things out by introducing a positively portrayed trans girl in Lily Hoshikawa. These were all great and necessary milestones in the current anime landscape and here’s hoping for much more in 2019.
While it didn’t make my list, Violet Evergarden left a lasting impression on me that won’t soon fade. Violet is probably one of my favorite new female characters introduced in 2018, and the show delivered some truly amazing scenes both from a production and story perspective. I particularly loved the setting, as I always find immediate post-war milieus being particularly rife with potential for good stories, and the show really did a lot to use it to its advantage.
IRODUKU: The World in Colors
Iroduku is far from PA Works’ best work: the story they set up in the first few episodes is rarely capitalized on and what could’ve been a grandiose tale of time travel and magic basically turns into a slice of life show. However…I don’t actually mind that. The show rivaled Yurucamp in how comfy it made me feel, presenting me each new week with characters that felt like they were my friends navigating an anime version of Nagasaki that was beautiful and picturesque at every turn. Perhaps predictably I think they also fumbled the ending pretty hard, setting up a predicted romance that was basically never capitalized on, but I still enjoyed my time with this show thoroughly.
FLCL Progressive and Alternative
While I really didn’t like most of Progressive and Alternative, they both did one thing that I will be eternally grateful to then for: bringing The Pillows back into the zeitgeist. Their production directly resulted in me seeing The Pillows live in New York, an experience I probably wouldn’t have ever had the chance to do again otherwise. Having my favorite band back in the greater conversation of Japanese music in 2018 was a big added plus, as well.